We Did Miss You, Roky Erickson
Okkervil River helps pioneer of psychedelic rock tell his stories
By Summer Olsson
After a decades-long saga of legal troubles, drug abuse and mental illness, Roky Erickson—frontman of The 13th Floor Elevators, the ’60s garage band often credited with inventing psychedelic rock—has released an album that is both redemptive and cathartic. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a selection of songs written by Erickson over his entire career, chronicling an emotional journey—from incarceration in a prison for the criminally insane to his self-imposed isolation in a squalid housing project, and beyond.
The honor and challenge of producing a rock legend’s first album in over a decade went to Will Sheff, whose Austin-based indie folk rock band Okkervil River played the music for the project. Sheff chose the 12 songs featured on True Love from a stockpile of 60, given to him by Erickson’s manager. Some of the tracks had seen the light of day before, through indie labels and bootlegs, but none had been worked over in a studio or widely released. Combined, the raw honesty of Erickson’s voice, the intricate support from Okkervil River and the careful production by Sheff make a fitting tribute to Erickson’s epic story.
Born in Austin in 1947, Erickson was an avid musician from childhood, forming his first bands (The Roulettes, The Spades) and touring Texas while still in high school. He wrote “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the song that would eventually get The 13th Floor Elevators on national radio, when he was only 15. By 1966, Erickson had formed the Elevators. He was playing sold-out shows and on a path to a successful musical career. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was on the Billboard charts and the band appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Erickson quickly became known for his radical vocals and wild garage music but also for his use of large quantities of drugs. Band members regularly took LSD, were arrested for drug possession and watched constantly by the police. Eventually Erickson became paranoid. He refused to go on stage during Elevators gigs and frequently disappeared. His label, International Artists, had him committed to a Houston hospital where he received electroshock treatments.
Things worsened from then on. The once-promising musician was arrested for marijuana possession, pronounced insane and sentenced to indefinite time in the Rusk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane. The 13th Floor Elevators dissolved and its members scattered. Erickson’s eventual release into the care of his mother did little to improve his situation. Her religious convictions kept her from allowing Erickson the medical treatment he needed for his mental condition. After stints living with his mother, and later a wife, Erickson ended up alone in an housing project apartment full of televisions and radios, kept on all the time to drown the noise in his head. It was only in 2001, when his brother was awarded custody of him, that things began to brighten. Erickson received much-needed medical care and started on a road to recovery. In 2007, the court restored him his own legal rights.
Through all the dark years, Erickson continued to write songs, using music as an outlet and a balm. True Love Cast Out All Evil is a musical biography of his life. Songs like “John Lawman” nod to his early work with layered, screeching guitar reverb and driving drums. The album sways between poetic optimism and excruciating grief: the former apparent in the gentle title track’s lyrics “we are meant to love one another all in harmony-rhyme,” the latter exemplified on “Please, Judge," wherein a narrator begs, “don’t send or keep that boy away.” Sheff also incorporated sounds from various recordings from Erickson’s life, including childhood home movies, housing project footage and even cicadas in his yard. Overall, the album has a spiritual, mournful feel with swells of hope. These are good stories and their personal resonance for Erickson makes them all the more resonant for the listener. Like Odysseus returning home, Erickson offers up his resurgence for all to hear.
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